Fighting for fresh air

In Cleveland, an organization is helping tenants take indoor air quality into their own hands

By Tobin Hack

Juanalicia Duran resides in government subsidized housing in Cleveland and has seen firsthand the toll that living with cockroaches can take on an asthmatic child. When her son contracted lead poisoning over a decade ago, the city moved them to a different unit. The family was safe from exposure to heavy metals, but faced another environmental health risk: a cockroach infestation.

“The unit was supposed to be much nicer and safer, but as soon as they opened the door to the new place you could smell the odor the roaches leave when they lay their eggs,” says Duran. “My son was constantly sick, back and forth to the hospital for his asthma, and I knew it was a direct result from being in the unit.”

Duran took legal action and was eventually moved to a pest-free apartment. These days, she teaches families how to manage roaches safely and effectively, and how to improve indoor air quality through her work at the Cleveland Tenants Organization (CTO), a social advocacy group that helps low-income families lobby for safe, affordable housing.

The CTO isn’t the only group worried about people in disadvantaged neighborhoods suffering from poor indoor air quality. In 2005, the EPA identified eight national environmental justice priorities; two of those—cutting down on asthma attacks and on exposure to air toxics—are directly linked to improving indoor air quality. In Cleveland, a 2004 study in two elementary schools found that about a quarter of children were diagnosed with asthma.

That’s why last summer the EPA awarded a $100,000 grant to an indoor air quality project spearheaded by the CTO and Cleveland’s Environmental Health Watch (EHW), which works to educate low-income families about lead-poisoning, asthma, pesticide exposure, and other problems common in substandard housing areas.

“Since most people spend a majority of their lives indoors, the quality of indoor air is a major area of concern,” EPA press officer Roxanne Smith said in an email.

Under the three-year grant, EHW’s licensed pest control workers, lead risk assessors, and healthy house technicians will conduct walk-through inspections and teach tenants about environmental hazards. At the same time, Duran and other CTO staff will hold monthly meetings to help tenants draft letters, seek legal help, learn about their rights, and negotiate with negligent landlords who fail to maintain properties.

“A lot of tenants aren’t aware of their rights, unfortunately, or they’re afraid that if they take action their landlord will retaliate,” says CTO Executive Director Mike Piepsny. “We’re using EHW’s technical expertise on environmental health and our advocacy work to teach these people how to hold their landlords accountable, and force change.”

Although Cleveland is infamous for its lead-poisoning problem, roaches are the biggest environmental health hazard that CTO and EHW have identified in their collaboration so far. “Roach dust”—body parts and droppings—is a potent asthma trigger, but the pesticide sprays that most tenants use to try to get rid of them are dangerously toxic.

Instead of using traditional pest control methods like spraying, fogging, and bombing, EWH and CTO teach tenants to use controls like borate powders and gel baits, which are safer environmentally because they can be applied exactly where they’re needed—along baseboards, under the refrigerator, and in other nooks and crannies—instead of all over the home. “You can apply gel bates in very tiny amounts, they’re low volatility so they don’t get into the air, and they have a low toxicity for humans and pets,” says Stuart Greenberg, director of EHW.

Asthma isn’t the only reason to get rid of roaches; physical disrepair in these low-income buildings can quickly lead to social disrepair, according to Piepsny. “Once these buildings start sliding downhill, they go quick,” he says. “You get drug activity in the buildings, you start getting holes in the walls, then the Department of Housing and Urban Development may foreclose on the property, and then you lose that subsidy.”

Although CTO and EHW are just getting started on their three-year EPA-funded project, other communities are interested in the model for their partnership. Piepsny will speak in Charleston next month at a conference hosted by an environmental health group similar to EHW. The conference will focus on how environmental health groups can work most effectively with tenant groups. “I think this kind of effective partnership is starting to get out there,” says Piepsny.

The key, says Greenberg, is empowering people who historically have had little political pull.  “We help people take self-defensive measures within their own units, protect themselves from housing-related health hazards, use joint action to secure building repairs, and use public policy to get resources and reinforcement from local government.”


You can safely kill roaches with a red light and a vacuum - learn how to kill pests without killing yourself or the earth......

There are about 50 to 60 million insect species on earth - we have named only about 1 million and there are only about 1 thousand pest species - already over 50% of these thousand pests are already resistant to our volatile, dangerous, synthetic pesticide POISONS. We accidentally lose about 25,000 to 100,000 species of insects, plants and animals every year due to "man's footprint". But, after poisoning the entire world and contaminating every living thing for over 60 years with these dangerous and ineffective pesticide POISONS we have not even controlled much less eliminated even one pest species and every year we use/misuse more and more pesticide POISONS to try to "keep up"! Even with all of this expensive and unnecessary pollution - we lose more and more crops and lives to these thousand pests every year.

We are losing the war against these thousand pests mainly because we insist on using only synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers There has been a severe "knowledge drought" - a worldwide decline in agricultural R&D, especially in production research and safe, more effective pest control since the advent of synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers. Today we are like lemmings running to the sea insisting that is the "right way". The greatest challenge facing humanity this century is the necessity for us to double our global food production with less land, less water, less nutrients, less science, frequent droughts, more and more contamination and ever-increasing pest damage.

National Poison Prevention Week, March 18-24,2007 was created to highlight the dangers of poisoning and how to prevent it. One study shows that about 70,000 children in the USA were involved in common household pesticide-related (acute) poisonings or exposures in 2004. At least two peer-reviewed studies have described associations between autism rates and pesticides (D'Amelio et al 2005; Roberts EM et al 2007 in EHP). It is estimated that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year just in the United States - No one is checking chronic contamination.
In order to try to help "stem the tide", I have just finished re-writing my IPM encyclopedia entitled: THE BEST CONTROL II, that contains over 2,800 safe and far more effective alternatives to pesticide POISONS. This latest copyrighted work is about 1,800 pages in length and is now being updated at my new website at .

This new website at has been basically updated; all we have left to update is Chapter 39 and to renumber the pages. All of these copyrighted items are free for you to read and/or download. There is simply no need to POISON yourself or your family or to have any pest problems.

Stephen L. Tvedten
2530 Hayes Street
Marne, Michigan 49435
"An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." --Victor Hugo

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." -- Martin Luther King Jr.

More and more, I see various programs cropping up to help low-income individuals save money and live greener lives. In Seattle, they're giving out free toilets to anyone with an income below $60 to save water and help them save on their water bill.

It's great to see Cleveland taking indoor air quality as a health concern seriously.